Maria Ochoa is a freshman at Casa Grande High in Petaluma. Photo by Itxaso Garay of Casa Grande High's Gaucho Gazette


For most, the ability to hear is a basic function that is often taken for granted. Without this sense it would be impossible for many of us to perceive the world around us.
Casa Grande High School freshman Maria Ochoa, born deaf, never has been able to hear. Despite her deafness, Ochoa is able to view life with the same, if not more, depth, wisdom and appreciation than others her age.
While Ochoa’s mother was pregnant, she was given a cat, and although she noticed she sneezed more frequently, she did not realize the impact it would have on her baby. As a result of her mother’s allergy during the pregnancy, Ochoa was born completely deaf.
“At first I was mainstreamed in a hearing school. There were very few deaf people at the school, but I learned to sign there when I was 6,” signed Ochoa. “It was hard at first to learn to sign but I learned more and more about it as I grew.”
After fifth grade, Ochoa enrolled in the Fremont School for the Deaf. All of the students were deaf and the curriculum was designed specifically to suit the needs of the students.
“I regret having to leave the Fremont School. I miss all of my friends from my old school. I miss the school a lot but we couldn’t afford it anymore so I didn’t have a choice,” signed Ochoa. “It’s hard to be back in a hearing school again because hearing people don’t understand me. I don’t speech read very well so it can be awkward when people try talking to me. But I try to teach them to sign so that they can talk to me.”
Although Ochoa regrets having to leave the Fremont School, she has been adjusting to Casa well. One setback, however, is that Ochoa has four interpreters; with this comes the challenge of inferring the different versions of what is being interpreted and determining who has the correct information. Her interpreters help translate for Ochoa so that she can effectively communicate with hearing student and teachers.
“At Casa I am finding many kids are fascinated with deafness. I think I might start an American Sign Language club and we could show videos of deaf people,” signed Ochoa. “People will realize that I have a good attitude and I have depth to me, that I am a real person.”
One of her interpreters, Matt Parkhurst, has been working with Ochoa for a year and a half. Parkhurst took a class in sign language in college and since has become actively involved in deaf culture and education.
As part of his job, Parkhurst interprets at colleges, theatrical concerts, prisons and mental hospitals.
“Maria is a confident young lady. She is mature in comparison to hearing high schoolers her age. She is not shy, she is direct, speaks her mind, is independent, and boy crazy. She has a great sense of humor,” said Parkhurst. “She is smart; she always has her hand in the air to answer questions. I definitely see med school in her future, if not the first deaf president of the U.S.”
Because of her condition, Ochoa underwent a surgery in 2008 to get a cochlear implant in her left ear. After the surgery, Ochoa had a month of recuperation before they turned on the device.
“I had to go to therapy so that I could learn all of the sounds. I decided later that I finally had enough of all of the speech therapy,” signed Ochoa. “My mom learned to sign when I was 6 but my dad never learned how to sign, so the cochlear implant is the only way that we can communicate.”
Ochoa identifies strongly with deaf culture and pride.
“Deaf culture,” as deaf professor Barbara Kannapell of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., said, “is a set of learned behaviors and perceptions that shape the values and norms of deaf people based on their shared or common experiences.”
“Deaf culture means that we are proud of who we are. We have deaf pride, we are proud to be deaf and we are proud of all of the fascinating deaf people in history. We cherish our culture’s identity. We support people who want to learn sign because the deaf community is so small, but at the same time hearing people have to learn how to support us, too,” signed Ochoa.
“Deaf culture has different ways of getting attention that hearing people don’t have. Touching and banging on things are OK. Turning on and off the lights is another way to get attention. Many deaf people have become deaf for different reasons and we honor this. It is very important to preserve the deaf language and culture.”
Out of school, Ochoa enjoys spending time with her friends at the mall and walking with her mother. Ochoa has a video phone that connects with her TV so that she can communicate with her deaf friends from the Fremont School. When she wants to talk to a hearing person, an interpreter’s screen can show up to help translate.
“There is more to a person than being deaf. We have interests and hobbies, too,” signed Ochoa. “Hearing people don’t understand the rights that deaf people deserve. They look at us with pity, like we aren’t on the same playing field as them, like we have a disability. The deaf culture is a collectivist society and so we focus on the group, unlike hearing people where it is more about the individual.”
People who have a hearing impediment may be less involved in deaf culture than people who are completely deaf like Ochoa. Also, hard of hearing people can have different values than completely deaf people.
“Deaf people are more effective communicators than hearing people,” signed Ochoa. “Deaf people are more animated when they talk, they tell better stories, use more body motions, and are more focused on you when you are talking. The language is more dynamic. Hearing people tend to talk over each other, but deaf people can’t.”
After high school, Ochoa hopes to attend college so she can one day become a doctor.
For those interested in learning more about deaf culture and pride, ASL and other aspects of deaf society, Ochoa is open to talking to any curious individuals.
“We have a lot to offer society,” she said. “If people are willing to learn, I am happy to teach.”

Reprinted from the Casa Grande High School Gaucho Gazette.